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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin’s recent assurance to the real estate sector that Floor Space Index (FSI) in Chennai would be increased even along narrow roads buttresses regulator CMDA’s proposal to allow FSI of 6.5 around Chennai Metro and MRTS. The Chief Minister was speaking at a meeting organised by the promoters’ body CREDAI.

The raised FSI promises to dramatically alter the city’s landscape, allowing for tall office and residential towers at many locations.

Earlier, the FSI was raised in 2018 during the AIADMK regime to 2 for residential buildings and a maximum of 3.62 for special buildings qualifying for premium FSI.

Is Chennai capable of absorbing the additional footfall that will come with a larger built-up area? Or will it collapse into an urban nightmare of too many vehicles on the roads causing traffic jams and further eroding walking spaces along with spiking air and noise pollution?

Evidently, the real estate sector is critical to the government for a number of reasons, including job creation, availability of affordable commercial spaces to draw more enterprises to Tamil Nadu’s capital, stabilisation of spiralling property costs, creation of more accessible offices and services and expanding the revenue base of the government.

Is Chennai capable of absorbing the additional footfall that will come with a larger built-up area? Or will it collapse into an urban nightmare of too many vehicles on the roads causing traffic jams and further eroding walking spaces along with spiking air and noise pollution? 

Urbanisation without design
What looks good in theory, however, doesn’t always work well in practice. As any Chennai resident knows, there has been a steady decline in liveability due to the stunted state of urban services in the city, particularly with regard to the crucial element of mobility that is central to the argument for the proposed FSI increase.

Take the case of the two major corridors now served by Chennai Metro’s Phase I, which are Anna Salai and EVR Periyar High Road (Poonamallee High Road). Barring the area around Chennai Central, fashioned as Central Square, the rest of the two arteries that run for about 20 km each with a Metro service have poor walking and feeder transport access. Pre-Covid options were few, and even these have been withdrawn.

Also Read: Challenges ahead for Chennai’s Third Master Plan

The Indian Roads Congress standards for walkability (IRC 103-2012) lays down a minimum unobstructed footpath width of 1.8 metres, and in practice, two metres. This translates into a working width of at least 6 feet, with no obstructions. For roads as wide as Anna Salai or EVR Salai, it should be more, at least eight feet. The other elements of good streets, such as regulated street vending have to be worked into the design too. Ironically, both these arteries met the requirement till about 40 years ago, before falling victim to rampant motorisation, commercial encroachments and loss of walkability.

Raising the FSI to 6.5 would be easy, but how will CMDA handle the near-certain boom in vehicles accessing the new towers, even where the main roads meet the criterion of 18 metres (60 feet)? The loss in bus ridership (confirmed in CMDA studies) and the switch of majority of office commuters to cars and two-wheelers rather than Chennai Metro or MRTS promises to intensify. Will CMDA prescribe a congestion-free zone and levy an access-controlled tax on vehicles coming to these locations? Or will it levy deterrent parking charges (for all except VIPs, naturally)?

No last mile upgrade
Although India’s transport industry has been upgrading to better buses and vans, and greater passenger comfort, Chennai’s mobility policy remains paralysed. It has bottlenecked entry for last mile connectivity with monopoly bus operator MTC offering only bad buses and refusing to invest in new routes. MTC has such poor vision that it is fighting a court battle with disability rights activists, refusing to shift to a low-floor, wheelchair-accessible fleet of buses. CMDA and mobility regulator CUMTA have called for an expert report on last mile connectivity, although the solution needs no reinvention, just implementation.

It needs to be emphasised that the proposal for higher FSI that Stalin has promised may cover narrow roads too with plots of 3,000 square metres and above. For narrower roads, the FSI of 5.7 may be available to plots slightly away from Metro termini but measuring 3,000 sq m. Importantly, most residential buildings built in the 1980s would qualify for this new FSI, as they are built on about 10,000 square feet plots, violate regulations badly and do not provide car parking. All these buildings can potentially double in size, in the TOD 2 zone (transit oriented development zone), and this will worsen liveability.

As any Chennai resident knows, there has been a steady decline in liveability due to the stunted state of urban services in the city, particularly with regard to the crucial element of mobility that is central to the argument for the proposed FSI increase

The key aspects to raising the stock of commercial and residential spaces in a densified city are walkability to meet IRC standards, taxation of private vehicle ownership, dramatic improvements to bus-based modern transport, an equally visionary last mile connectivity system that liberalises operation of shared transport by air-conditioned vans, and zero tolerance to encroachments in public spaces including footpaths.

None of this is easy for government agencies that have got accustomed to rent seeking, condoning of building violations through regularisation schemes, benign indulgence towards commercial encroachments on public spaces and accommodating vested interests such as transport lobbies functioning through patronage — all these trends assiduously protected by the parties in power.

Also Read: Will a new law ensure coherent and viable planning of TN’s cities and towns?

The core city where Metro Phase I is already operational has been unable to decongest itself and curb hyper-motorisation. It has failed to raise walkability standards. The Greater Chennai Corporation’s Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) policy is virtually a non-starter. Now, the city is looking at an extended version of itself, stretching across 5,904 sq km in a new Chennai Metropolitan Area. Without a visionary approach, the city would be driving into an endless gridlock.


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